Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Will good karma be enough for Good Humus?

As much as I would like my every meal to be from In-n-Out, the desire to live past 40 compels me to eat vegetables. This fall, I’ve been receiving a CSA (community support agriculture, where a customer pays a flat fee to a farm and receives a weekly supply of vegetables and fruit that varies according season and the kind of year the farm is having) from Good Humus Farm in Capay, CA. Capay is a small, unincorporated community of approximately 300 people, which lies 3 miles north and west of Esparto on CA-16. Good Humus was featured on a National Public Radio feature in a story that sought to “mak(e) connections between the food on our tables and the families that cultivate and conserve.” It is easy to see why the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (who produced the piece) picked Good Humus. Good Humus is a small, completely organic farm owned by its eloquent and photogenic founders, Jeff and Annie Main. Jeff and Annie met as students with a passion for sustainable agriculture at UC Davis in the 70s, bought land in rural Yolo County, and literally built their farm from the ground up. They raised their three children on the farm. They are an integral part of the Davis community, offering tours to UC Davis students and Davis elementary school students, and well as being a staple at the farmer’s market. And they grow a tasty acorn squash to boot.

After liberally enjoying Jeff and Annie’s produce all fall, I thought it was only right to attend a screening of a film about Good Humus, the Last Crop, which tells of Jeff and Annie’s efforts to preserve their farm through a specialized type of easement. A normal conservation easement creates a legally enforceable restriction on the use of the land to preserve certain characteristics. Generally, conservation easements placed on farms restrict certain types of development. While the farmer receives a tax rebate to encourage conservation, money often needs to be raised to make up the massive difference between the value of a particular piece of land if developed and the value of the land if left undeveloped. Usually a land trust or land conservancy organization provides or raises that capital.

Jeff and Annie’s easement goes a step further. They want an easement that will guarantee the land not only be removed from the risk of development, but further that their land be perpetually farmed in the same organic, sustainable way it is currently in use. This requires creating a trust to raise money to make the land affordable for a farmer to buy. Because their 20 acres would be worth $400,000 if sold for development but only yield $100,000 if used for agriculture, they need to raise the difference of $300,000. Therefore, a farmer can come along and buy the farm after the Mains retire for $100,000 and the Main’s trust will pay the remaining money. Since conservation easements “run with the land,” any subsequent purchaser of Good Humus will be bound to farm it. Jeff and Annie have partnered with Equity Trust, a land trust in Massachusetts, and Yolo Land Trust in Woodland, CA to raise the money and complete the easement.

This specific type of conservation easement is called an agricultural easement and is growing in visibility and popularity. For the first time in 2008, the Farm Bill included increased tax benefits for agricultural easements along with the tax benefits for conventional conservation easements. Land conservancies specializing in agricultural easements have sprung up in 15 states. The American Farmland Institute published a five-part study, gauging the direction and effectiveness of agricultural easements. Among their ultimate findings was that:

Easements effectively help to redirect or influence urban growth in about a half dozen of the communities served by sample programs, working largely in conjunction with local government planning policies, zoning and other land use regulations, and service delivery limitations.

However, the AFI also found that:

Most sample programs are not prepared for the long-term job of protecting the continued viability of their holdings and preventing or responding to problems of noncompliance with easement restrictions. They have not put sufficient resources into stewardship activities, as seen in inconsistent and incomplete efforts to periodically monitor the conditions of easement properties.

It’s easy to see the appeal of agricultural easements. Given the special place the small family farm has in the collective conscience of this country, protecting a small, visible piece of Americana in a patchwork fashion can make people “feel good” without asking for the significant sacrifice (in the probable form of higher land and food prices) that a full scale de-collectivization/industrialization of agriculture might require. The Mains hit all the right points in the film. Jeff speaks in an earthy voice about a deep connection to the land he has made fertile for over 20 years and chokes up in a paradoxically rugged way when considering having to pass his land on. Annie speaks about the need to assure their own personal values of sustainability and community involvement are not compromised when they sell their land. However, I wonder if this idea can work on the larger scale. Most family farms are not owned by people as articulate and media-savvy as the Mains. Most family farms are nowhere near as connected to the community as Good Humus. Most family farms are not located so close to an area such as Davis, full of Marin County ex-pats with deep pockets and a taste for all things organic, sustainable, and “green.” The family farm is certainly in trouble. Good Humus might be one of the few lucky ones with a way out.

Jeff and Annie Mains with a visitor on their farm.
(photo courtesy Davis Farm-to-School Connection)


LT said...

What an interesting post! I think I may sign up for the Good Humus CSA now...

I think you make a really great point about small family farms being in trouble and the Mains's farm probably being an exception to the rule. I watched the Good Humus video on youtube and I think you are quite right that not all farmers are as sophisticated and savvy as Jeff and Annie are in taking steps to preserve their values in sustainability and making sure those values stay with their land. The hip and trendy organic/"green" communities with money certainly are the best places for small family farmers to flourish, but those kinds of communities surely are not representative of family farms on the whole.

Yooli said...

Great post! I can see your point about the ENFORCEMENT of agricultural easements, because as you and AFI point out, how is that going to be monitored? Having worked on the 2008 Farm Bill I know that easements as a whole have gained a lot of popularity within agriculture and perhaps as this particular type of easement gains popularity there could be a push for some sort of federal registry or oversight at USDA. I have a feeling that along with the "Know Your Farmer" program and USDA and slow food movements, people are going to want to PRESERVE family farms for the future, much in the same way we preserve historic homes and wildlife. Annie and Jeff have always been at the cutting edge of this type of green, slow and sustainable agriculture and with people like Alice Waters and the Obamas, couldn't you see them rallying around preserving family farms for both environmental and historic reasons? USDA helps with preserving all sorts of land and making sure its left undeveloped - so why not family farms? Jeff and Annie have taken in a lot of press in the last few years, with the NPR pieces and the movie, and in a way, I wonder if its a means to gain some insurance on protecting their land. There would be an undisputable record of what they want for their land, beyond the 4-corners of a legal document.

Becky Hayes said...

On the point of small family farms being in trouble financially, I think to the farm field trips I just posted about. These farm field trip experiences are one way that small, family farms make ends meet. It could certainly be a big help to a lot of small farms like Good Humus to get their name out their to students, and, through them their parents, and the community as a whole to encourage visitors and field trips. This seems like such a great farm and such a great program. I am sure many more people would be interested if there was a way for them to get more exposure.

Taylor Call said...

I agree with LT that this farm near Davis is not like what you will likely encounter further from these so called "trendy organic/green communities." However, with a high demand for local organic foods, these are the perfect places to test this type of farm/easement. Many people want local organic food, and smaller farms are better equipped to deal with specific demands of their customers. They can grow what their customers want, instead of having to grow a single crop and sell it to a large corporation. If these farms can be sustainable and support an average size family, I can imagine that their numbers will increase.

It would be interesting to know the ideal amount of farm land needed to be sustainable (supporting family, not in poverty, etc.). Maybe twenty acres is the perfect number to be profitable while still maintaining a "family farm" (meaning not too much outside help). Maybe the number is closer to 80 acres. Whatever happens with these farms, we can learn from the mistakes of the new family farmers and adjust strategies, enforcement, and the layout of the trusts accordingly.